WATCH: Once-in-a-lifetime Great Barrier Reef find
LADY Elliot Island Master Reef Guide Jacinta Shackleton was conducting research in the waters off the Lady Elliot Island on the Great Barrier Reef in late March when she spotted an ornate eagle ray.
With little over fifty sightings recorded worldwide, the ornate eagle ray is rarely seen, making this a once in a lifetime experience for Ms Shackleton.
"I had only been in the water for five minutes before I noticed a large eagle ray coming towards me, but it looked different from the white spotted eagle rays we frequently see around the island," Ms Shackleton said.
"The head of this eagle ray appeared to be slightly flatter and the colouration was different, it was also travelling alone whereas the white spotted eagle rays generally travel in a group. It was then I realised this was in fact an endangered ornate eagle ray!"
Ms Shackleton could not believe her eyes as ornate eagle rays a rare species with very few recorded sightings across the world.
"My first time seeing this rare species of ray gliding along right there on the reef was such an unforgettable and emotional experience," Ms Shackleton said.
"I've spent two years diving around the reef and there are a few rare species of sea life that live in the waters around Lady Elliot Island, but this was the first ornate eagle ray I had ever seen.
"I was then incredibly lucky to see another one only a few weeks later, I couldn't believe it!
"This incredible experience has made me aware of just how fortunate I am to have spent so much time immersed in nature and how lucky we are to have such a rich and vibrant variety of life right here in our own backyard."
Executive Director at the Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute Philippines, Gonzalo Araujo, currently conducts research into the ornate eagle ray and said his first sighting in the Philippines made him curious to understand more about this rare type of ray.
"The species is so rare that I've heard long-time divers call it the 'unicorn' of the sea," Mr Araujo said.
"We do not know why the species is this rare and unfortunately we don't know their movement patterns and there is no population data available - but this is what we are trying to find out.
"However, we have been documenting individual animals with the support of the public, and the engagement of people like Jacinta, and so far we have identified nine individual ornate eagle rays on the Great Barrier Reef, six of which were identified at Lady Elliot Island.
"One of the most interesting things about the ornate eagle ray that Jacinta saw, is that it was the same individual ray that had been sighted at Lady Elliot Island on two prior occasions so it is encouraging to see a familiar face pop up again."
Dr Andrew Chin from the Centre for Sustainable Tropical Fisheries and Aquaculture at James Cook University has been studying ornate eagle rays with Mr Araujo and believes the mix of location, currents and cooler water temperatures may have something to do with why the ornate eagle ray was sighted off Lady Elliot Island.
"These are just theories and we're working hard to try and find out more, which is why sightings such as the one Jacinta had last month are vital to our research," Dr Chin said.
While the species, which can grow to the size of a manta ray, occupies waters from the West Pacific to the Western Indian Ocean, their occurrence is patchy and infrequent.
Mr Araujo and Dr Chin said they hope that anyone who comes across one of these magnificent ornate eagle rays reports it.
"We encourage anyone who thinks they've spotted an ornate eagle ray to log their sighting and submit their photos to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority 'sightings network' or download the Sightings App," Dr Chin said.
"By reporting any sightings this will help us understand the species better and ultimately protect them for decades to come," Mr Araujo said.
When travel restrictions lift and it is safe to travel again, the Great Barrier Reef will be ready to welcome visitors into this bountiful natural playground.
Future travellers are encouraged to start planning their next holiday to this world heritage wonderland to see the reef, love the reef and ultimately, help protect the reef.